Editorial: Prepare for North Korean provocation

Tribune Content Agency

What is happening in North Korea is unclear. But the U.S. should be clear about how to respond to what is happening with Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader who has not been seen for weeks, sparking speculation that he is healthy but laying low, ill or incapacitated, or even dead.

The Trump administration must anticipate any of these scenarios. For each possibility, it should be ready to respond to any newfound provocation from Kim or a putative successor meant to reassert the regime domestically by testing a world worn thin by the coronavirus pandemic.

This means that U.S. ties need to be bolstered with South Korea and Japan — America’s key Asian allies who are at odds with each other. A multilateral approach has always been the best way to contend with the successive Kims who have ruled North Korea for generations. That means multilateralism among Washington and a patched-up Tokyo and Seoul alliance, for certain, but also some kind of cooperation with Beijing — despite strained relations because the COVID-19 pandemic started (and was concealed by) China, North Korea’s enabling ally.

Shoring up the strains within the alliance won’t be easy, especially since the discord is deep and emotional, mostly over World War II “history issues” estranging Japan and South Korea. Add to that the Trump administration’s unnecessary and ill-timed squabble with South Korea over defense costs, a distracting dispute that must be resolved.

Bridging the Beijing-Washington divide will be even harder. But both sides have a vested interest in relative stability, even if it includes the unstable Kim remaining as leader. China fears that instability from a crisis could create a wave of refugees amid a pandemic and has made it clear that it will resist a reunited Korean Peninsula that could bring U.S. troops to China’s border.

For every nation, the notion of an even more bellicose Pyongyang (perhaps led by a new ruler like Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong) is worrisome. A military miscalculation could turn catastrophic, whether it is from the regime itself or from another state or nonstate actor acquiring North Korea’s nuclear know-how, or the nuclear weapons themselves.

The uncertainty reveals the depth and breadth of President Donald Trump’s strategic error in elevating Kim so significantly through summits that not only accomplished nothing of substance but undercut the working-level relationships between Washington and Pyongyang that would be necessary to implement any accord. Now it’s reportedly difficult for top U.S. officials — up to the secretary of state — to engage with their North Korean counterparts, leaving the U.S. in the dark about Kim’s fate, let alone the fortunes of the world.

Should he reemerge, don’t expect Kim to reengage on a more productive level. “Kim is not just about security guarantees,” Jung H. Pak, a former CIA analyst who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said during a webinar on Tuesday. Pak, author of “Becoming Kim Jong Un,” added that, “He requires a hostile outside world to justify his reign.”

Whether it remains his reign is unclear. But it seems clear that regardless of who leads North Korea, the U.S. must be prepared for provocation, and Trump, or his successor, should try a new approach.


©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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